Q From Neal Mohlmann: I can't find where first, second and third originated, as opposed to oneth, twoth, and threeth, which is the way all other numbers are formed that end in any number other than one, two or three. Do you know how these forms came about and why all other numbers simply end in th? Though eleventh is regularly formed from eleven, why is it so unlike one?
A These differences might be cause for a sad reflection on the inconsistencies and irregularity of the English language, except that there’s nothing at all surprising about them. Most languages are irregular in the way they create the small ordinal numbers, the adjectives that express position in a series. This illustrates the seemingly universal rule that the commonest words are the ones that least conform to the rules.
Old English was no exception. It had a standard ending -(o)tha or -(o)the to create the ordinals (in modern English this has turned into -(e)th, as in fifth or twentieth) and it used them for the numbers from three onwards. However, it had no regularly formed ordinals for the numbers one and two (why that should be so is lost in prehistory) and it had to make do with whatever circumlocutions could be made to serve.
To fill the blank for the number one, for example, Old English used various superlatives, including old versions of words that we now write as earliest and foremost. Our first, to start with in the forms fyrst or fyrest, appeared about the year 1000 but took over from the older terms a couple of hundred years later; it’s from Germanic predecessors that meant the foremost person in a society, a term we would now translate as prince. In Dutch and German it has evolved into vorst and Fürst in that sense.
Expressing the idea of second posed similar problems but there wasn’t a word that could easily be adapted. Old English fell back on other, which you will appreciate was horribly ambiguous. The situation was saved by the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought the French word second into the language. This was from Latin secundus, the following or next in a series; it was based on sequi, to follow, from which we get sequel.
Third wasn’t a problem, as the Germanic languages did have a word for it, thridda, which is closely related to three and also to modern Dutch derde and German dritte. By one of those oddities of usage, around the sixteenth century the middle letters became inverted, a process called metathesis, to create third, thereby obscuring its close connection to three.
Eleven does contain a reference to one, though much disguised. In Old English the word was endleofon. This is made up from an old form of one plus a ancient German word that appeared in Old English as laefan, to leave. In essence, eleven was “one left”, or ten plus one left over. Twelve is formed in the same way.